The NewsFuror

Friday, October 12, 2007

US trade deficit narrows further

The US trade deficit narrowed more substantially than expected in August as export levels rose to a monthly high while imports fell.

It fell 2.4% to $57.6bn (£28.3bn), the lowest monthly shortfall since January.

The politically-sensitive deficit with China narrowed by 5.3% to $22.5bn as the US sold more aircraft and soybeans while China sold fewer computers.

Despite a string of high-profile safety recalls of toys, Chinese toy exports to the US actually increased.

This was largely due to retailers ordering more stock ahead of Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Weak dollar

The value of US exports rose to a record $138.3bn in August thanks, in part, to the fall in the value of the US dollar against other major currencies which made exports more competitive.

In contrast, the value of imports fell 0.4% to $195.9bn as US firms reduced shipments of foreign-made cars and furniture.

The narrowing deficit is good news for the Bush administration which has faced sustained criticism over the country's spiralling trade imbalance in recent years.

The deficit for the first eight months of 2007 totalled $708bn, down 6.7% on the corresponding period last year.

The strength of the export sector also provides a fillip for companies worried about the state of the US economy amid the housing slump and instability in financial markets.

Wall Street responded positively to the figures, with one analyst calling it a "great number".

"The trade deficit is smaller than expected on a weaker dollar," said Michael Woolfolk, senior currency strategist at the Bank of New York Mellon.

US alleges Chinese trade barriers

The US is seeking a World Trade Organization (WTO) probe over whether Chinese rules over imports of copyrighted US goods break trade rules.

According to the US, Chinese barriers to imports of legal US films, books and music have prompted a surge in fakes.

The US is asking the WTO to set up a panel to investigate further, after direct talks with China failed.

This is the fourth time the US has asked a WTO panel to resolve what is sees as unfair Chinese trade barriers.

The latest request argues that restrictions on US imports of copyrighted goods in China break rules that apply to China as a WTO member.

Piracy complaint

The US wants to eliminate Chinese import and internal distribution barriers that "significantly hamper the ability of US publishers and producers of audio-visual products to get their legitimate products into the Chinese marketplace under normal market conditions".

As well as breaking WTO rules, the US says the limits are a breach of rules under the General Agreement on Tariffs (GAAT) and the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS).

The latest move comes after the WTO launched a formal probe, following a US complaint about piracy in China in September, to examine claims that Beijing failed to tackle counterfeiting.

China's failure to apply copyright laws has caused US software, music and book publishers to lose billions of dollars in sales, the US alleged.

Airbus 'insider trading' denied

French finance minister Christine Lagarde has denied the government acted improperly in relation to alleged insider trading at Airbus parent, EADS.

Giving evidence to parliament, she said her ministry was not aware of any problems at the firm before approving share sales in the Airbus owner.

Media reports claim the state knew about setbacks to the Airbus 380 and still allowed suspicious share sales.

These occurred before news about delays to the Airbus A380 emerged last June.

The services of my ministry performed their task in the most professional manner
French finance minister Christine Lagarde

Ms Lagarde told a French parliamentary committee on Thursday that the government had acted "in the most irreproachable" manner with regard to EADS from the end of 2005 to May 2006, when delays to the Airbus 380 superjumbo first became public.

The announcement wiped 26% off the value of EADS, the Franco-German firm which owns the Airbus plane manufacturer.

A report from the stock market regulator AMF sent to the French prosecutor's office a week ago is understood to have examined the extensive sale of stock options before the problems with the plane were revealed.

The French press, claiming to have seen a leaked copy of the report, claim 21 former and current managers are under suspicion but stock market regulators have refused to comment on this, saying their probe is incomplete.

This prompted a parliamentary investigation into the role of the French government, a major EADS shareholder, amid allegations that ministers allowed state bank CDC to buy shares from defence firm Lagardere in April 2006 despite knowing about problems at the plane maker.

'Not aware'

Ms Lagarde said that the finance ministry's internal investigation into its conduct proved that until "at least the end of May 2006", the government was "no more aware than the public or the markets" of delays with the superjumbo A380.

"The services of my ministry performed their task in the most professional manner, the most irreproachable fashion," she said.

Thierry Breton, finance minister at the time, testified last week before the parliamentary committee that he knew nothing of the deal with Lagardere, also defending the finance ministry's actions as "beyond reproach".

President Nicolas Sarkozy has promised to investigate fully whether the government played any part in the alleged insider trading, while opposition politicians have called for a public inquiry into the matter.

Oil price hovers near record high

Oil prices surged past the $83-a-barrel level on Thursday, near record highs, after a US inventory report showed lower-than-expected stockpiles.

Supply fears sent US sweet light crude up $1.78 to $83.08 a barrel, near its $83.90 high set on 20 September.

US crude stocks fell by 1.7 million barrels last week, according to the US department of energy. A gain of one million had been expected.

The news also pushed up London Brent Crude by $1.55 to $80.15.

World oil prices have been rising since the beginning of the year on the fear that supply will be unable to cope with rising demand.

In addition, some investors have bet heavily that the price of crude oil must rise further, pushing up prices even higher.

UK download sales 'reach £163m'

More than £160m will be spent on music and video downloads in the UK this year, according to a forecast.

Market analysts Verdict said digital downloads will be worth £163m in 2007 - up 45.5% on last year.

And digital spending will continue to soar, reaching £600m a year by 2012, according to Verdict's UK Music and Video Retailers 2007 report.

But CD and DVD spending has slowed, it said, with the overall UK music and video market down 2.9% to £4bn in 2007.

Verdict analyst Nick Gladding said: "While piracy will continue and CD volumes will decline further, retailers generally are now better placed to cope with new market challenges."

Author Lessing wins Nobel honour

Lessing has been nominated for the Booker Prize three times
British author Doris Lessing has been awarded this year's Nobel Prize for Literature.

The 87-year-old has been honoured with the 10m kronor (£763,000) award for her life's work over a 57-year career.

Her best-known works include The Golden Notebook, Memoirs of a Survivor and The Summer Before the Dark.

Lessing said she was "very glad" about the honour - particularly as she was told 40 years ago that the Nobel hierarchy did not like her.

She told BBC Radio 4: "I've won it. I'm very pleased and now we're going to have a lot of speeches and flowers and it will be very nice."

They can't give a Nobel to someone who's dead so I think they were probably thinking they had better give it to me now
Doris Lessing
She recalled that, in the 1960s, "they sent one of their minions especially to tell me they didn't like me at the Nobel Prize and I would never get it".

"So now they've decided they're going to give it to me. So why? I mean, why do they like me any better now than they did then?"

The author, who turns 88 on 22 October, said she thought she had become more respectable with age.

"They can't give a Nobel to someone who's dead so I think they were probably thinking they had better give it to me now before I popped off," she said.

Lessing is only the 11th woman to win the prize, considered by many to be the world's highest accolade for writers, since it started in 1901.

And she is the second British writer to win in three years, after Harold Pinter was honoured in 2005. Turkish author Orhan Pamuk won last year.

The Swedish Academy, which awards the prize, described Lessing as "that epicist of the female experience, who with scepticism, fire and visionary power has subjected a divided civilisation to scrutiny".

"Oh good, did they say that about me?" she replied. "Oh goodness, well obviously they like me better now than they used to."

Lessing was out shopping when the announcement was made and said she thought a TV show was being filmed on her street when she returned to find TV crews outside her house.

Lessing was born in what is now Iran and moved to Rhodesia - now Zimbabwe - as a child before settling in England in 1949.

Her debut novel The Grass is Singing was published the following year and she made her breakthrough with The Golden Notebook in 1962.

'Pioneering work'

"The burgeoning feminist movement saw it as a pioneering work and it belongs to the handful of books that informed the 20th Century view of the male-female relationship," the Swedish Academy said.

But Lessing herself has distanced herself from the feminist movement.

The content of her other novels ranges from semi-autobiographical African experiences to social and political struggle, psychological thrillers and science fiction.

She has been nominated for the Booker Prize three times - for Briefing for a Descent into Hell in 1971, The Sirian Experiments in 1981 and The Good Terrorist in 1985 - but has never won.

In addition to the Nobel cash prize, Lessing will receive a gold medal and an invitation to give a lecture at the academy's headquarters in Stockholm. She can also expect to see a rise in sales.

US author Philip Roth had been the bookmakers' favourite for the award. His name has been mentioned in connection with the prize for many years, but he has always been overlooked.

Duchovny's 'shocking' new role

David Duchovny, best known for his role in the supernatural series The X-Files, returns to TV as a jaded novelist in Californication.

The dark comedy features nudity and graphic sex scenes. Critics have described it as "shocking" and "the filthiest new show on television".

Its provocative tone is set from the very first scene. It features a church, a nun and sex.

Duchovny's promiscuous character, Hank, stumbles through life in a drunken, disillusioned state, brought on by writers' block.

A tortured soul, he has just seen his critically acclaimed book made into a film. But the movie has trivialised his story, transforming it into a romantic comedy.

"The character that I play is a serious novelist, supposedly, who's had his novel turned into a lightweight, crappy movie - and it's part of his heartache," says Duchovny.

"That's a tangent of the show - the trivialisation that can happen in the entertainment business."

It's about a guy looking for redemption and completely screwing up
David Duchovny

The concept of an angst-ridden writer battling his own demons is hardly new. But there has probably never been a time when one of the show's themes - poking fun at dumb Hollywood - has been more relevant.

"You know what you need to know about Californication and showbusiness just by knowing that Hollywood is in California, and you know a little about the kind of movies that Hollywood turns out. I don't think you need to know anything else.

"It's really just a human comedy. It's about a guy looking for redemption and completely screwing up."

But the premise has not gone down well with some US critics.

"Californication tries to poke fun at the hypocrisy and delusions of Hollywood, but it doesn't have enough wit or sense of place to be very convincing," writes Alessandra Stanley in the New York Times.

"Mostly the series comes off as male payback for Sex and the City, a series that often belittled men and treated them as sex objects," adds the critic.

"Our show is a lot more dark, even though it's a comedy, it's heavier than Sex and the City," counters Duchovny.

"The sex is not without consequence, which I think mostly it was in that show."

The role marks a departure from Duchnovy's performance as sullen FBI agent Fox Mulder in The X-Files.

"It's liberating for me to try to play comedy," he says.

"I was just really attracted to the character. He was funny in a way that I thought I could be funny.

"A lot of humour comes out of adults acting like children, but Hank is acting like a recognisable adult/child, rather than a complete and utter imbecile."

Sexual trysts

The show also focuses on Hank's broken family, recalling happier times with his ex-girlfriend, Karen, played by British actress Natascha McElhone, and their 12-year old daughter Becca (Madeleine Martin).

But the drama has attracted attention in the US largely because of the character's many sexual trysts.

"One of the things that I like about our show is that its approach to sex is kind of something that happens in a day," he says.

"It seems, in movies and television, sex is this amazing occurrence that is either horrible or transformative. In our show, it is just something that this guy I play falls into sometimes twice a day, sometimes once a week.

"It's just another part of human intercourse."

As for the nudity, Duchcovny says he felt a need to tone up before the cameras started rolling - against the wishes of the show's creator, Tom Kapinos.

"I said, 'I want to get in shape for this if I'm going to show my ass, it's my ass'. And he said, 'no, this guy's a kind of dissolute writer, he doesn't go to the gym, just let it go'."

Duchovny says "gratuitous nudity" plays a role in the drama, and that it is simply there "to sell" the show to the audience.

"It's just human nature - it's what they've always wanted and what they always will want. Sex and death are the big mysteries that won't get solved, and we're always going to come back to them."

Californication airs in the UK on Thursdays at 2200 BST on Five

Singer Faithfull has hepatitis C

Singer Marianne Faithfull has revealed she was diagnosed with the hepatitis C virus in the 1990s.

Faithfull, 60, let slip that she had the virus while discussing her recent treatment for breast cancer on ITV1's This Morning programme.

"I found out about 12 years ago," she told host Phillip Schofield, adding she had received treatment at the time.

Hepatitis C is a virus carried in the blood that, if left untreated, can cause fatal liver problems.

There is currently no vaccine for the virus, which is has sometimes been called the silent epidemic.

'Incredibly lucky'

Faithfull, a former heroin addict, made no link between her reckless youth and her having the virus.

However, she admitted she had taken "a lot of risks". "I was incredibly lucky," she said. "I shouldn't be alive, I know that."

"Life has become much more precious to me and my health has become much more precious to me."

Hepatitis C is usually transmitted through blood-to-blood contact and can lay dormant for years.

In an interview given two months before her death, Body Shop founder Dame Anita Roddick revealed she had been infected from a blood transfusion in 1971.

The gravelly-voiced Faithfull first found fame in the 1960s as the muse of Rolling Stones lead singer Mick Jagger.

McCartney divorce back in court

Sir Paul arrived at the High Court wearing a dark suit
Sir Paul and Heather Mills McCartney have been at the High Court in London to try to reach a divorce settlement.

There was no news on any agreement at the end of proceedings. Reports suggested the key issue was likely to be the size of the settlement.

Sir Paul left court at about 1840 BST, giving his familar "V" sign as he went past photographers.

Lady McCartney, who had arrived in the morning with a blanket over her head, shielded her face as she left later.

Both had used judges' entrances to enter court on Thursday morning, avoiding contact with the media.

As the time approached for the beginning of the hearing, officials barricaded the entrance to court 16 with four office chairs.

Even the small spy hole in the door of the court had been covered to stop prying eyes.

Estimated fortune

Sir Paul and Lady McCartney, who have a three-year-old daughter named Beatrice, announced in May 2006 that they were ending their four-year marriage.

With the former Beatle's fortune estimated at £825m, it has the potential to be the most costly divorce in British legal history.

Press speculation has suggested the settlement could reach £60m, exceeding the record £48m businessman John Charman was told to pay his former wife in May this year.

In January, Lady McCartney's lawyers denied she had agreed to a financial settlement worth £32m.

The couple were last at the High Court in March for a preliminary hearing.

Singer Brown denies heart attack

US singer Bobby Brown has said he did not suffer a mild heart attack in Los Angeles earlier this week, despite his lawyer announcing that he did.

The 38-year-old told the Associated Press he was feeling fine and had only gone to hospital to see his doctor.

"None of it's true," Brown said of the reports. "I went in for a check-up. The doc gave me a clean bill of health."

His Atlanta attorney had earlier told the same news agency he had gone to hospital with severe chest pains.

Brown, who is scheduled to perform in Los Angeles on Saturday, said he had no idea "where the heart attack thing came from".


The singer is currently battling for custody over the daughter he has with ex-wife Whitney Houston.

A court date has been set for 22 October.

Brown, a former member of New Edition, gained solo fame with singles such as Don't Be Cruel and My Prerogative.

He and Houston divorced in April after a tempestuous 14-year marriage.

Shoaib banned after hitting Asif

Shoaib Akhtar has been banned for 13 games by the Pakistan Cricket Board over an incident in which he struck team-mate Mohammad Asif with a bat.

The seamer was sent home from the World Twenty20 in South Africa and has also been fined £28,000 after an inquiry.

The ban has been backdated to the South Africa tournament so he will only sit out four more international games.

However, he has been warned that any more misdemeanours will mean the end of his career at the highest level.

"If he is found guilty of any act of indiscipline, he faces a life ban," said PCB disciplinary committee chairman Shafqat Naghmi.

Naghmi said the 32-year-old had been found guilty of three charges relating to the Asif incident: hitting a team-mate, accusing another player, Shahid Afridi, of involvement, and holding a news conference on his return from South Africa.

The committe also found against him on two other charges of missing a training camp in August in order to play a charity match in England and publicly criticising the PCB.

I have been going through a nightmare for the last four weeks
Shoaib Akhtar

Shoaib previously insisted he had accidentally struck Asif, who he claimed had intervened in a row with Afridi.

Now the "Rawalpindi Express" says he accepts his punishment and is eager to play again for his country at the first available opportunity, which Naghmi said would be the tour of India in November.

"I have suffered enough, it was all in the heat of the moment and I'll make sure to be extra careful in the future," Shoaib said.

"I have already apologised to Asif, to the whole nation and the PCB, now I just want to move on and concentrate on playing cricket for Pakistan.

"I have been going through a nightmare for the last four weeks and whatever happened I just don't want to even recall it."

Last year Shoaib and Asif tested positive for a banned substance ahead of the Champions Trophy and were sent home from the tournament in India.

They were subsequently cleared but Shoaib has played just one Test and four one-dayers in the last 15 months because of fitness and disciplinary problems.

The selectors must now choose whether to save Shoaib for the India tour, to begin from 1 November, or to play him in the final home one-day international against South Africa.

Celtic fined as Dida receives ban

Celtic have been fined £25,000 and AC Milan goalkeeper Dida has been banned for two matches following trouble at the recent Champions League game.

However, the European champions intend to appeal against the penalty imposed on the 34-year-old Brazilian.

Dida collapsed dramatically after a fan appeared to strike him near the end of AC Milan's 2-1 defeat on 3 October.

Celtic were found guilty of a lack of organisation and improper conduct of supporters at the Celtic Park match.

The Scottish champions will pay half of the fine now, while the rest is deferred over a two-year probationary period.

Celtic chief executive Peter Lawwell issued a statement saying: "As a club we feel this penalty is proportionate to the incident in question and a fair outcome.

"We took this matter extremely seriously and following an immediate internal investigation took swift and firm action against the offender.

"Celtic FC will continue to take all organisational, security and health and safety matters as its first priority."

Dida was stretchered off after being confronted by the invading fan and was criticised for overreacting.

Uefa's control and disciplinary body took a dim view of the keeper's theatrics, charging him with a lack of sportsmanship.

"It involved the fan, we don't condone that, hence, the fine for Celtic," said Uefa spokesman Rob Faulkner.

"But at the same time it was fairly clear that what happened after Dida had set off, fallen to the ground and the antics after that were a little bit out of keeping with the incident.

"I think that's why he has come out with a two-game ban."

The incident occurred after Scott McDonald had slammed in Celtic's winner late on after Dida had failed to hold a Gary Caldwell shot.

The fan, who has since been identified and banned by Celtic for life, ran onto the pitch and made contact with Dida, who proceeded to briefly give chase before collapsing to the ground.

He was eventually substituted, with Australian Zeljko Kalac replacing him.

The Italian club's lawyer, Leandro Cantamessa, described the sanctions against Dida as "disproportionate and illogical".

He added: "I have no issue with Celtic but I am only trying to establish a sense of proportion - one is the event, the other is only the effect of the event."

If Dida's ban stands, he will miss the Champions League double-header with Group D leaders Shaktar Donestk.

UN Security Council rebukes Burma

The UN Security Council has adopted a statement deploring Burma's military crackdown on pro-democracy protesters.

The agreement came after China lifted its objections to a statement first drafted by the US, UK and France.

It represents the first time the 15-nation body has taken any formal action over Burma.

The move indicates a shift of position by China, which had previously used its veto to stop the council from criticising Burma's military junta.

The statement "strongly deplores the use of violence against peaceful demonstrators" in Burma and calls on the junta and all other parties "to work together toward a de-escalation of the situation and a peaceful solution".

It also calls for the early release of "all political prisoners and remaining detainees", urging the junta to prepare for a "genuine dialogue" with opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi.

The non-binding statement - which, unlike a resolution, requires the consent of all 15 council members to be adopted - was issued by Ghana's UN Ambassador Leslie Christian, the council's president.

US Ambassador to the UN Zalmay Khalilzad said the statement was an important achievement.

"Our expectation is that this statement will have... a positive impact on the situation on the ground in terms of government behaviour and if it doesn't we're committed to coming back," he said.

Dr Thaung Htun, the UN representative for Burma's government-in-exile, said it sent a clear message to the generals to end violence and begin political dialogue.

"But the Security Council should closely monitor the situation and then evaluate how the military respond to the statement," he warned.

Gambari to return

Meanwhile, the UN said special envoy Ibrahim Gambari would tour Asia this weekend in a trip expected to culminate in his second visit to Burma since the demonstrations erupted last month.

Mr Gambari returned from a four-day visit to the country last week and had not been expected to return until mid-November.

His visit is aimed at kick-starting a political dialogue and securing the release of political detainees.

Rangoon says 10 people were killed and 2,100 arrested as last month's demonstrations, many of which were led by Buddhist monks, were quelled.

But foreign diplomats and analysts fear both figures could be far higher.

Dissidents and human rights groups have long accused Burma's regime of torturing political prisoners.

The government adamantly rejects all allegations of torture, and Burma's state-run media argue that more than half of those arrested during the protests have since been released.

However, there has been little news about some several hundred still believed to be in detention.

And earlier on Thursday, a pro-democracy activist arrested during the crackdown was reported as having died in custody.

Win Shwe, 42, a member of the National League for Democracy (NLD), died "as a result of torture during interrogation", the Thailand-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP) said.

Iraq strike 'kills 15 civilians'

The US military says 19 suspected insurgents and 15 women and children have been killed in an operation north of Baghdad.

The air and ground assault was targeted at senior leaders of al-Qaeda in Iraq, in the Lake Tharthar region, it said.

An initial air raid killed four insurgents and more air strikes were launched to back up US ground troops, a statement said.

A further 15 insurgents were found dead along with six women and nine children.

'Small-arms fire'

The US military said the first air strike was launched after intelligence reports suggested senior members of al-Qaeda in Iraq were meeting in the Lake Tharthar area, 120km (75 miles) north of the capital.

The coalition said that after the first air raid suspects were observed fleeing to an area south of the lake.

Ground forces attacked a building in which insurgents were believed to be hiding and were engaged by small-arms fire, the statement said. Further air strikes were then called in.

After securing the area, the troops found 15 dead suspected insurgents along with 15 dead civilians.

Two suspected militants, one woman and three children were wounded and another suspect was detained, the statement said.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has in the past expressed frustration with his allies over US military action resulting in civilian deaths.

Maj Brad Leighton, a Multi-National Force-Iraq spokesman, said: "We regret that civilians are hurt or killed while coalition forces search to rid Iraq of terrorism.

"These terrorists chose to deliberately place innocent Iraqi women and children in danger by their actions and presence."

Lake Tharthar was the location for one of executed former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's grandest residences, the so-called Green Palace.

US, Russia in key missile talks

The US and Russia are set for high-level talks in Moscow that will focus on Washington's plans to place a missile defence system in Europe.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defence Secretary Robert Gates will meet their opposite numbers to try to tackle the Kremlin's opposition.

Moscow sees US plans to base radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in Poland as a threat to its own security.

The US says it has to counteract "rogue states" like Iran and North Korea.

The Kremlin has asked the US why it cannot instead use Russian-operated early warning radar in Azerbaijan.

Friday's talks are also expected to cover Russia's threat to leave the Treaty on Conventional Armed Forces in Europe and aim nuclear missiles at Europe if the US forges ahead.

'Serious problems'

Analysts say discussions on what might succeed the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) on nuclear weapons, which expires in 2009, are also likely.

And the political future of Kosovo will be on the agenda.

The so-called two-plus-two meeting will bring Ms Rice and Mr Gates face-to-face with their Russian counterparts, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Defence Minister Anatoly Serdyukov.

"We have been very clear that we need the Czech and Polish sites," Ms Rice told journalists on her plane as it flew to Moscow on Thursday night.

The secretary of state, who trained as a Soviet specialist during the Cold War, is also expected to hold a private meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

BBC Moscow correspondent Richard Galpin says there is little hope of progress on the key issue of the US missile defence plans.

He says the fact that Ms Rice and Mr Gates have flown to Moscow shows how serious problems are now between the two countries.

The US diplomatic team is also expected to seek Russian backing for tougher sanctions against Iran.

Washington says Iran wants to build nuclear weapons but Tehran says it simply wants to produce nuclear energy.

Mr Putin, who is due to visit Iran next week, says there is no evidence that Iran is trying to build a nuclear bomb.